Students Attack Tough Subjects Through Zombies
A course called Zombies! at Georgetown is showing students what the popular fictional characters can tell us about our society, past and present.
Nathaniel Rivers, an assistant professor of English, teaches the first-year critical reading and writing course.
Students in the course write essays and blog about such movies as 28 Days Later and Night of the Living Dead and books such as the Jane Austen send-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith.
“The course looks at what fears about society and ideology are expressed in zombie fiction,” Rivers says, “such as becoming part of a society where the individual ceases to exist, or what zombies, who persuade us to become them by consuming us, have to say about persuasion and identification.”
One student, Rohit Mukherjee (NHS’12), wrote about how in movies and books, zombies kill people just because they are different.
“At our core, we possess the same force of destruction as the zombie masses,” Mukherjee wrote. “No virus led the Hutu masses to hack their Tutsi neighbors to death … their rage was intrinsic.”
The class also compared modern zombie movies to earlier ones, such as 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.
“One day we talked about how most Zombies now move fast and they used to move very slowly,” Rivers recalls. “The students didn’t understand why slow-moving zombies were scary.”
To answer the question, the professor pulled up an article on the Internet by Max Brooks, author of a book required for the course: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.
In the past, Brooks notes, people’s fears were associated with slow-moving threats such as the Cold War to events such as 9/11, which make fast-moving, unexpected events more frightening.
The professor notes that “the zombie genre has been continually updated and when it gets updated, it typically reflects that time.”
Films in the 1930s had “zombie slaves,” reflecting the country’s labor issues, while the 1978 film Dawn of the Dead that has zombies eating people stuck in a mall, is “very clearly about conspicuous consumption,” the professor says. And as real infectious diseases such as bird flu and H1N1 emerged “zombie viruses” began to appear in books and film.
An expert in rhetoric and composition, Rivers says he got the idea for the course after a friend gave him a copy of the Austen send-up, now required reading for the course.
“The reason I found the book so fascinating is because the author extends Austen’s critique of that society by having them interact with Zombies,” Rivers says.
Zombies in the new book show up uninvited to balls and are shunned by the upper-crust society in the original Austen story, he says.
“They’re not dressed properly, and once you’re dead it’s polite to stay dead,” Rivers explains. “It’s an expose on that society, magnified by having them interact with zombies.